Why Ask Why? Touching the Depths in the Valley of Suck


Kids ask it all the time when they do not get what they want.  It is one of the most basic questions for learning.  At times, it will also eat away at your soul.

"Why?" doesn't fit easily into any of the Dr. Kubler-Ross' 5 stages of grief ( denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), but if it fits anywhere, I think it tends to fit at anger.  In my journey through the valley of suck (before, during, and after the death of my wife from colon cancer), I have not really dealt with "why."

Those who have been through the valley know these five stages are not easy to track.  They are not stages that go "step 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5." They hit you coming and going and they will take advantage of everyday life.  Sometimes it feels like a Three Stooges skit.  Grief is always Moe, to our Larry and Curly, you never know if grief will pull your nose, poke your eyes or kick you in the rear.

But "Why?" hit me, not surprisingly, at the "happiest place on earth."  One of my wife's wishes had been to go to Orlando before our kids both finished High School.  We did it this past week but on the day we went to the Magic Kingdom I came to the place of asking "Why?"

Oh, nothing was Disney's fault.  It was just the reality of seeing families being together.  I'm sure there were other single parents around but I never saw them or it didn't register.  We made the best of it for sure, it was a good day in the end but the nagging question finally came...

Why God?

I've noted before that I've wrestled with God throughout this journey.  I have been angry at God and let God have it many days.  So what brought it out now?

I think, maybe, I got to the end of things.  At the moment the contrast of my life was most stark - all the moments when Heather SHOULD have been with us and was not - the wall I was trying to hold up - crashed.

But there is no answer to "Why God?"  I knew this to be the case which is what led me to fight against it all this time.  We live life and in living, we all face the same things - those who are good and those who are evil.  It is not lightly that Jesus says, "God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:45)  If you read the context, it is in regards to our facing persecution for our faith but it points to the larger truth we all will face difficulties.  The question is: will we face difficulties with faith or without faith?

From what I have observed, we will face a "Why God?" time in our lives; most likely, it will even be more than once.  Like building muscles, these times provide resistance to our faith; they cause us to "push back" or "stretch ourselves" and thus, stretch our faith and trust in God.

We keep finding ways to get out of straining ourselves in life, though, haven't we?  We're so innovative in coming up with automation and robotics to do the "heavy lifting" of our lives.  We laugh at the humans in the movie "Wall-E" for how they can do nothing on their own, yet we are moving in that very direction.  But when it comes to faith - our spirituality - the condition of our souls - there is no automation.  There is life and there is death.

So why is it we don't ask God more often about life rather than death?  Why do you not wake up and ask - "Why God?" when you get to live another day?  Or after you make it through another day..."Why God?" What do you have in store next?

I'll tell you why: you and I take health and life for granted.  We care about it less because we have the luxury of taking it for granted.  But the truth is, you can't - not really - death is always there.  For some "Why God?" is a silly question altogether because faith and spirituality seem pointless.  Asking "why?" even seems silly, and I would agree...to a point.

This is why I fought it.  Call it a practice of "practical atheism" maybe - I never believed there was going to be an answer given.  I didn't get one when I asked it this week and I do not expect to get one.  But I needed to ask it anyway if only to take the next step in living.

"Why?"  Because we are living beings and in this world, living things die.  Call that being a "practical biologist" or a "practical human" even.  Asking "why" leads to conclusions and, hopefully, more questions.  These are the questions which lead me back to being a "practical spiritualist," that there is something far more noble in the inner journey of the world's religions.

Please don't take this to mean I am a universalist for I am far from that.  It is simply my observation that the majority of human beings are wondering "why" about a great many things which leads them to seek after the divine and the spiritual.  My observation is when we ask "Why God" in relationship to the death of a person who we love unconditionally, we may find ourselves as close as we may ever get to the bottom, to the place we can truly know mercy.

I have no idea if any of this makes sense to you, my friend.  If you leave with anything, I hope it is this: Go ahead and ask "Why God?"  BUT, fight it as long as you must for when you come to the place of asking it, you have earned it.  You may not get an answer, in fact, I suspect you won't.  What I hope you find is what I have have found - a place to stop; maybe the bottom; maybe just a place to catch your breath.  And when you have found this, you have found mercy in the valley of suck.

Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/question-mark-1175151

Oh the Lessons You'll Learn in the Valley of Suck

What did I expect it to be like now?  Better, I guess.  Getting back out again, I hoped.  New experiences?  Maybe new friendships?  I would really like just about anything but new surprises.

Guess what I get?  The valley of suck still sucks five months into the journey.

I have learned from the surprises.  Oh, my, yes, have I learned.  I did not want to learn it all - not this way - not all at once but yeah.  The valley doesn't care.

1. We're all different in our grief.
One of the things I secretly love is learning about people I'm on the journey with.  I love all the extroverts and introverts and seeing how we handle it.  We're all in different life stages, different priorities, and we're all different people.  Of course we're all different - even pastors - we fight through the valley differently.  It helps me learn.

2. The world changed while I was married.
When Heather and I dated, we didn't have cell phones, FB, and the internet was just becoming a thing.  I'm not only learning how to do life as a single dad, I'm learning how to live life as a single man.  I. Have. No. Idea. What. I. Am. Doing.

3. The right thing will set you off but I don't know what it will be.
Seriously, you aren't sure if the tears are gone or not.  You feel like it is all making a bit more sense.  BAM!  I take the cat to the vet and start crying because the cat was Heather's buddy.  I'm trying to cook dinner and find a recipe in her handwriting.  AND HERE IS THE THING...THIS NEVER GOES AWAY.  Yep, apparently what I've learned from others is I get to carry that one.

4. Everybody calls at the wrong time.
You thought it was bad before but nope, it gets worse.  Just a heads up friends.

5. Your family gets stranger.
Admittedly, the Hagler clan here in Georgia is an odd bunch and we liked it that way.  We were "TEAM HAGLER" and our motto has been Ohana (from Lilo & Stitch).  Nobody gets left behind or forgotten.  But our family is different.  Heather is not forgotten but she is gone.  Death parted our journies.  Now we are three very different people fighting each other and fighting a world trying to tear us apart.  We don't quite recognize TEAM HAGLER.  It is strange.

6. You are alone.
It is just the way it is.  Everyone's life goes on.  Folks try and mean well and wish well but it can't be helped.  Here in the valley of suck, my life goes on too, it just isn't what I thought.  It never is for anybody.

7. There are a lot of mistakes you'll make and they will change you.
Oh, wow.  Looking back over the months now, yeah, I've left a trail and the valley has left its mark on my heart and soul.  Some have said to me, "Don't change," well, I've learned - I don't get an option.  I have changed.  I will change.  I need to change.  I must change.  Period.

8. If you'll pay attention - God shows up.
Yeah, that paying attention part is what is going to trip you up, and quite possibly, it will be literal.  One of my favorite stories in recent years is the story of a young disciple going to his teacher and asking about wrestling with the devil and the demons.  The teacher said, "Oh, when I was younger I wrestled with the devil and we'd go back and forth." The student asked, "So you learned how to defeat the devil and the demons, then?"  "Oh no," said the teacher, "Now the devil goes his way and I go mine. You see, now that I am older I wrestle with God.  That, my disciple, is much harder."  I thought I understood it when I first heard it.  I was wrong.  I do think I get it now.  Learning the practice of Stillness has been a big part (see previous blog).

If you've read my writings on the valley of suck, you know I'm writing from my heart in a way I have never written.  Some may even confuse what I write with despair or doubt.  Don't.  It is not.  It is as raw as I can possibly give you.  That last story does tell it best.  All the Scripture warnings to "watch" and "be on your guard" are not always about the second coming of Jesus.  The day may come you will find yourself wrestling God in the valley of suck.

Lord, have mercy.

Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/eye-surprised-1453026

Catching Fireflies: Learning the Way of Stillness

Being silent or still was never my strong suit.  I was the kid to run with scissors or make a scene.  I am pretty sure I spent more time in the hall in third grade than I did in class.  My decade in youth ministry probably got a lot those tendencies out but every now and again, especially when the moon is just right, I can go toe-to-toe with my two teenagers for having the loudest laugh and being the most obnoxious.

Even so, I have also found myself responding for a number of years to a different yearning.  I will tell you it has been hard to hear or catch sight of many times.  The best I can describe it is like chasing a lightning bug at night, a flash, and it is gone.  A buzz at your ear, you turn, and it goes silent.  This yearning has always been just beyond my reach.

In the journey through the "Valley of Suck" as my wife's caregiver, something changed.  Whether it was in me or around me, I do not know.  Was it being hand in hand with my best friend, in the thin space between life and death and connected by love?  I still don't know but something did change.  The "flash" didn't leave.  The "buzz" stayed beside me.  Did they stay or did I finally become still enough to take it in?

This is what the practice of Stillness is really about, becoming aware enough of the flash, the buzz, "the still small voice."  As I indicated in my last blog, there are practices of the Christian faith which are quite ancient but sadly, quite ignored or dismissed for various reasons.  I think one of those reasons, which is a bit uncomfortable, is the reality that the spiritual realm, and thus spirituality, is out of our control.  I would agree, it is, the spiritual is the realm of the Spirit of God.  Thankfully, God has not left us without guidance!  God's instruction to us in regards to spirituality is simple: becoming more like Jesus Christ - learning to love.

The writer of the Psalms speaks of a call to "stillness."  The writer notes we are to be still in order to know God (Ps 4:4, 46:10).  This is primary to our understanding this spiritual practice.  But the Psalmist looks too at God's living example and so recognizes the example of God who stills all of creation (Ps. 65:7, 89:9, 107:29).  Things get out of control in the world.  Things get out of control within us.  In both cases, there is a need to be still and there is practical, Christian ways by which we can live so we might live a life of love.

We must keep this in mind when examining any claims on a spiritual practice.  If it does not lead to nurturing perfect love in us, we must question the intentions and practice.  Abba Philimon (a Christian teacher from the 6th or 7th century), emphasized that Stillness is the foundational practice on our journey toward loving as Jesus Christ taught us.  In his teaching (it ought to be noted, many of the words here are not to be understood as equivalent to their 21st century counterpart in translation) he observed conforming to God's love was not possible without stillness, for "...stillness gives birth to ascetic effort, ascetic effort to tears, tears to awe, awe to humility, humility to foresight, foresight to love. (173, Philokalia)."  Gregory of Sinai also notes stillness as the foundational practice in learning theology.

Five Simple Steps Toward Stillness
After studying, practicing, and reflecting, these are what I have found to be five of the most influential elements of the practice of Stillness. There are other aspects to Stillness than the five below.  This is true for most any spiritual practice.  There are different ways to pray, to read Scripture or to practice fasting.

1. Still Your Body. 
The desert fathers and mothers understood our bodies can provide us with many distractions.  One must recognize and plan for a certain amount of comfort in learning stillness.  But the body and spirit are not separate. The body IS the temple of God's Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).  St. Mark the Ascetic observed, "the intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also (165, ibid).:  Find a position or location where you can be comfortable. A good chair maybe all you need.

2. Still Your Thoughts.
Again and again and again in my life and spiritual journey, I have found my thoughts to be the hardest thing to handle.  From thinking of my to-do list for the day, week, or month, worrying about my kids, to wandering to the next sermon to prepare, I have struggled to still my thinking.  St. Hesychios' words provide a great image, "...lash the enemy with the name of Jesus and, as a certain wise man has said, let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath, and then you will know the blessing of stillness (167, ibid). To practice Stillness, focus on the name of Jesus Christ.  I have found the Jesus Prayer the best way to start.

3. Watch for Irritation.
When you have kids in your home, there is ALWAYS going to be interruptions.  My cats run a close second on many mornings.  The point is, something or someone is going to interrupt - what does that lead to for you?  St. Theodoros observes, "...we should not consider this an irksome interruption of our stillness, lest we cut ourselves off from the law of love.  This is why St. John, too, says, 'My children, let us love not in word or tongue, but in action and truth. And by this we know that we belong to the truth" (1 John 3:18-19) (171, ibid)."  Far from being a "bad sign," being aware of your irritation, anxiety, or anger, is a sign you ARE being still, even if just a little bit.

4. Adjust Accordingly for Distractions.
Besides irritation, getting distracted is a huge issue in practicing stillness.  One of the reasons the desert fathers and mothers went to the desert was to battle with the things and situations which distracted them from God.  I can only imagine what they must think of the distractions we have in our day - and we think virtually NOTHING of them!  The desert was a perfect place to detach from things but things are not the only distraction.  Theodoros also noted, "You must avoid continuously wasting time...if you have indeed chosen to practice stillness. So restrict your relationships with other people, lest your intellect should become distracted and your life of stillness disrupted (171, ibid)."  Obviously, Stillness is not a practice for us all but if you are going to focus on it, you'll probably want to change your Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat habits.

5. Examine Your Heart.
"Let your model for stillness of heart be the man who holds a mirror into which he looks.  Then you will see both good and evil imprinted on your heart," taught St. Hesychios (167. ibid).  I can't help thinking of James 1:23-25 when I read this.  It isn't just that you look and see - it isn't just that you are still and feel love - nope - what are you doing with it?

The practice of Stillness is not the only practice we've lost track of but it is surely one which was emphasized in the Church in centuries past.  I would argue as well, we are in need of it again because it seems we are far too attached to power in this world than we are to God's Kingdom and other human beings.  Our Christian ancestors knew well this temptation following Constantine's conversion to Christianity.  Roberta Bondi points out an important difference between our 21st Century understanding of loving and dealing with other people, and the early Christians.  She writes, "This love of other people who are God's images is not an abstract love of humanity, a warm feeling of kinship toward humankind in general. Love of neighbor included taking very seriously the actual day-to-day welfare of the real people... (32, "To Pray and To Love)."

Our spiritual practices are not merely for our own benefit but for practical, real life transformation for ourselves AND for others.  The concern growing in me is we are really not interested in Jesus, the Son of God.  We are interested in Christ's Church and who is in power here and now.  I recall the disciples of Jesus arguing this very thing, too.  Not much has changed.  Again, are we interest in knowing God or do we just want God's stuff?  We are going to have a hard time knowing which is which, if we are not engaged in spiritual practices which examine our soul and those passions which are festering ever more in the deep wound sin has left on us.

Be still.
Catch Fireflies.
Know God.

Works Cited:
Philokalia: "The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts"
Bondi, Roberta: "To Pray and To Love"


Recovering the Practice of Stillness

Most times, the initial feeling we have in our gut is the one we need to pay attention to.  My friend, Dr. George Tomes, was the first person to really teach me how important the gut is to our overall health and well-being.

The problem for me is my brain and tongue can operate independently of my gut.  When this takes place is usually the time when I make a mess of things. I wish my track record was better than it is.  As I have considered this point over the past weeks, I made the observation, no matter how smart or wise I think I have been, the idealism of my youth has been shattered by the reality of the years.

I suspect you, the reader, and I, are a lot alike in preferring the echo chamber of like-minded people.  It is comfortable to believe our way is the "right way" and it is comfortable to label others, based solely on our observations.  The results of the recent election are a prime example but this is only one more event in the long line of human history where this has occurred.

Going back to the gut, one of its primary responsibilities is to process the food and drink we take in.  The brain and mouth have to work to make this happen.  In spiritual practices, the practice of fasting restricts this, in part, to address the passion/temptation of gluttony and to exert control over the body.  It is, no doubt, a sure sign of religious piety to fast regularly.

But what is it we are practicing to restrict our mind and mouth from being rash and foolish in our words?  Is it scripture memory? Is it reciting the daily office? Is it just thinking good and noble thoughts?

The writer of Proverbs cautions you and me: "watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23,NASB)."  What is the life which is springing from your heart?  The warning of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back always gets to the simple things: Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it aggression?  You may not know what is coming out of your heart but those around surely do UNLESS you are surrounded only by your echo chamber.

This is the challenge of Jesus: "Love your enemy and those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)."  And you cannot love a person who you cannot reach or you will not reach out to. (This is NOT endorsing being in or seeking out abusive relationships!).

In the early centuries of the Church, "guarding your heart" was also known to be the way of attentiveness or of Stillness.  St. Hesychios the Priest wrote:
"If you wish to be "in the Lord," do not just SEEM to be a monk, and good, and gentle, and always at one with God, decide  to BE such a person in truth.  With all your strength, pursue the virtue of attentiveness - that guard and watch of the intellect, that perfect stillness of heart and blessed state of the soul... (I, On Watchfulness and Holiness, Sec 115)."

Tragically, the lessons of the desert fathers and mothers have been mixed with poor theology and wrong interpretation through the years and centuries.  Their teaching is often confused with the heretical practice of "Quietism" which notably the Roman Catholic Church and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, condemned.

In the writings of St. Theodoros we find the consistent teaching that the practice Stillness does NOT mean putting off serving other people.  Quietism does endorse this very thing - that we need not concern ourselves with good works.  Theodoros wrote: "When we receive visits from our brethren, we should not consider this an irksome interruption of our stillness, lest we cut ourselves off from the law of love. This is why St. John, too, says, "My children, let us love not in word or tongue, but in action and truth. And by this we know that we belong to the truth" (1 John 3:18-19)" ("Philokalia," 171).

Stillness is a practice that includes being quiet but it is not being naive to the work we are doing in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This practice of Stillness is the listening, the praying, the searching of our heart and intellect in the presence of God's Spirit and, following the lead of the Spirit, it is the casting off of the "old man - the false self," the "dark side."

Stillness, like other spiritual practices, is simple but far from simplistic.  The practice of Stillness moves us from the echo chamber of our mind to partnering in the constructive and convicting work of God's Spirit.

To practice Stillness means to spend time alone.  It challenges us to put aside images and distractions from our mind.  But we aren't being inactive either.  "Stillness, prayer, love, and self-control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven" writes St Thalassios (ibid, 171).  Another picture of stillness is that of a mirror.  In Stillness we are looking at ourselves honestly under the Spirit's guidance and "then you will see both good and evil imprinted on your heart" (ibid, 167).  Finally, the central tenet to the practice of Stillness is prayer centered only on Jesus Christ.

I would have thought in the Valley of Suck that it would have been easy to practice Stillness.  The reality is, there is nothing about our life and culture which makes Stillness to be natural or easy for us.  The best teachings on Stillness are centuries old, so it clearly was no easier in the days Jesus lived.  Like any spiritual practice, we need humble hearts and godly guidance.  We need both all the more if we are to overcome the devilish divisions of the Church and the world today.

Work Cited: Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts
Image Used with Permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/screwed-up-1562969

Which Candidate Gets My Heart?

It is almost over.  It seems like all of us U.S. Americans have grown tired of this election cycle.  Many creative trick-or-treaters took the opportunity to make the best of this Halloween with many creative costumes reflecting politics.  Everyone has an opinion.

That is good, right?  Isn't that the purpose of the "good old first amendment," we talk about?  I know I have "enjoyed" many conversations with both my young adult kids.  They have been heated at times but always respectful and always times where we have learned.  I am fairly impressed at the level of knowledge my kids now have about their government.  If they continue the pattern they have begun, they will do well.

But this is not what I am writing about. No, something has been angling below the surface for me in all this.  You see, I am one of those "moderates" who is mysteriously floating out and about.  I have friends voting for all the major candidates.  I have read the FB questions, namely, the one which goes:

"I want to hear from someone who is supporting (insert candidate name) about why they are voting for them.  I honestly want to know because I can't find anyone voting for  (insert candidate name) yet."


I can pull out numerous people on EVERYSIDE from my FB friends...and yes, many of these are people I can say are my friends.  I am so very THANKFUL my friends are this diverse but it still isn't what is bothering me.

Her words still echo in my mind when I think back to the first time I heard her say them:

"Judgmentalism was considered quite possibly the worst sin a Christian could commit to the desert fathers and mothers of the early church."

Those words of Dr. Roberta Bondi were a blow to my understanding of what could be the worst possible sin.  And it is this, this judgmentalism, that is gnawing at my heart, at my own conscience.  You will note, in my posts, I have stayed far away from talking politics or passing judgment.  Some would argue, I am failing to stand in the pulpit and express a prophetic voice...maybe, but whose prophet would I be?  Over whose vision of our country am I to proclaim a prophetic word?  And, should not the Spirit of God be the one moving my heart?

And again, I find myself examining more deeply my own heart - not regarding the character of the candidates but towards which candidate(s) am I passing judgment and on whom, among friends and neighbors, am I secretly writing a note of condemnation?

Today I cast my ballot. But the question is did I cast it with righteous indignation like the Pharisee in Luke 18 or did I do it in humility knowing and recognizing much more is at stake than our nation?  Our hearts are what is at stake.  Our faith is at stake.  Are we really going to go so far as to say if one candidate were elected over the other, you'd leave? You'd do as some have done and renounce your citizenship?

But didn't Jesus say God cares even about sparrows that fall to earth?  God knows the hairs on your head...and the hairs on Hillary's head and Trump's head?  And this includes Obama's head and W's head?  Are only your candidates worthy of grace?

I am looking at my heart and I really don't like what I see there, nope not one bit.  Is it better than it was four years ago? Ten years ago? 20? I sure hope so but I am nowhere near where I would like to be, not close to what Dr. Bondi describes when she writes further about those early monastics who taught, "...the humble person knew very well that not only are all human beings sinners - himself or herself included - humility has no problem believing that God loves us and will not reject us, even damaged by sin (51, "To Love as God Loves")."

There are plenty of things in my world which damage me, which draw me away from the presence of God and toward a life I really do not want to live.  The lives of politicians ought not to be one of them.  So in the end, I will give to Caesar what is Caesar's but NO Caesar can lay claim to my heart. I hope and will strive to be sure my heart stays with God.  In your mercy, Lord, hear my prayer.

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